Friday, 20 April 2018

Luxembourg - as winter turns to spring

It feels like it’s been a long winter here in Luxembourg. Not a particularly cold one, it has to be said, but it seems to have dragged on forever.

I started working here in mid-September. At home in Warsaw the weather was still pretty good. Mostly sunny, not particularly warm but not really cold either. Lots of autumnal cloud and showers, I recall. Like it usually is in that month. Luxembourg, of course is a bit further south than Warsaw, and a bit further to the east, bordering France and Germany and Belgium, so I expected similar conditions here from the outset.

And in that I was right. It has been much of a muchness. Both places endured long dark nights, plenty of rain, and relatively little snow – even when The Beast From The East numbers 1, 2 and 3 swept through continental Europe in March, leaving destruction and floods behind. While Britain shivered and ground to a halt (as it always does when temperatures dip below zero for a day or two), while unusually deep snowfalls stunned everyone in the most southerly parts of Italy and Greece, the good people of the Grand Duchy and the Rzeczpospolita shrugged their collective shoulders and carried on as before.

Poland is, of course, historically used to long, freezing winters, even if they are lately somewhat of a rarity. There are plenty of snow ploughs in operation, little impact on the country’s railways and other public transport (notwithstanding the older trams being very cold and uncomfortable) and everyone has to change to winter tyres sometime in October. There is little impact on we fliers either: all the airports have plenty of ploughs and de-icing trucks to keep runways and aprons clear of all but the very worst snowfalls, and delays are rare and mainly due to aircraft de-icing procedures that add maybe 5 or 10 minutes to departure. Even that was rare to non-existent this year – if there were de-icing delays at Warsaw airport they happened on days when I didn’t travel: I can’t remember a single early Monday morning flight where we had to pause for a clean up.

Now I’m not sure what constitutes “normal” winter weather in Luxembourg. I don’t know whether it suffers a lot from prolonged rainfall and chilly winds, or whether deep and crisp and even snowfalls are a regular occurrence: I believe not. From talking to people at work, it does seem to be a rather cold and wet winter climate, so not unlike Britain. Which makes this winter pretty normal. I didn’t notice any snowploughs in evidence on the roads around the city, or for that matter at the airport, and the amount of snow that fell seemed less than back home, with no more effect. No road closures, even during the worst of March weather, that I was aware of, trains and buses seemed to be running without problem and the road traffic no better or worse.

There was one morning where my flight (running nicely on time) was diverted to Dusseldorf leading to a pleasant day riding on German trains to complete the trip (see Delays, diversions and cancellations – when things go wrong posted in mid February for a full report), and one Friday evening in March when a blizzard started as I was leaving for the airport that I expected would cause me problems (in the event my flight landed, we boarded and took off – without de-icing – bang on time: friends of mine travelling to Bucharest via Munich were less lucky and spent an additional night in a Luxembourgisch hotel paid for by Lufthansa), but apart from that the snow, such as it was, passed me by completely.

So in weather terms, this long winter was not so bad. But Luxembourg is not my home. Warsaw is. Living in a hotel, a very average hotel, is something that although I’m used to it is still not right. OK, the beds are comfortable enough (although the pillows way too soft) and I can watch BBC News, BBC1 and BBC2 on the tv in my room, and the place is only a 10 minute walk from the office (which I can see from most rooms I’ve slept in so far), so it is nothing if not convenient. There is a bar and restaurant in another block in the complex and the food edible although lacking variety. The fact that you have to walk 100metres or so from hotel reception to bar complex makes things less attractive, especially if the weather is cold and wet or snowy.

The old town, the city centre, is a 10 or 15 minutes walk away, and although there is a good selection of restaurants and bars there, its distance makes it just as unappealing in winter months. So I’ve ended up pretty much ensconced in my hotel room most nights. For the past 6 months. I KNOW I could have broken the monotony and gone elsewhere, and indeed did so, at least on the better (dryer, less cold) evenings, but frankly after a day of either sheer boredom or fraught argument and high stress by the time I get back to the hotel the last thing I’ve wanted to do after dropping my bag back in the room is to go back out again. Feet up and relax, try to get my blood pressure down and my stress levels back to normal has been the name of the game. It’s a very pretty and small city, with some lovely parks to walk through in better weather, a good variety of eateries and (expensive) shops, even a selection of English bookshops – no question. But its smallness can work against it. Once you’ve spent a couple of evenings, or even a couple of lunch breaks, exploring the city centre, that’s it – done. No surprises any more.

I was in town on a bank holiday early in my assignment. I enjoyed a lie in, then showered, had a late breakfast just before the restaurant closed, and set off to do a bit of sightseeing. I had planned to do a bit of window shopping, find an English pub a friend had recommended and settle there with beer, food, my music and my book for a few hours. The town was dead as a doornail. Hardly anyone was out and about, and I would guess most were people like me, visitors at a loose end in a strange town. All the shops were closed and shuttered. So were the restaurants, even McDonald’s. I wandered around for a couple of hours, took in the better views across the valley of the Grund and up to Kirchberg plateau with its EU Court of Justice dominating the skyline, and headed back towards the station, which was close to the English pub. I found the White Rose alright – but like everywhere else it was barred and shuttered, lunch time or not. Sadly I headed back to the hotel and stumbled upon an open branch of Subway – so that was dinner taken care of.

I’m told this is absolutely typical. Not only on public holidays but weekends too the place is like a ghost town. Never been in a city like it.

So I’m glad that this week spring has sprung.

The sun came out over the weekend, as it has across all Europe, and temperatures soared to a pleasant mid 20s. And in a few short days the trees in the park behind my hotel have gone from cold grey skeletons to bursting with green leaves and buds. The flower beds are suddenly a riot of colour surrounded by lush green grass, and I’ve been woken in the mornings by bright sunlight rather than rain or traffic noise.

I’ve spent most evenings wandering over to the old town, and sampled three very nice little cafes, sitting outside in the evening sunlight enjoying cold beer and good food (and of course my book), watching the world go by. There are more people about now: instead of hurrying home or to the hotel at the end of the working day people are doing like me and enjoying the usual European cafe society.

I expect Warsaw will be the same, when I get there in a few hours’ time (I’m finishing this in the airport Starbucks en route) and look forward to getting the bike out and going for a ride with mon famille. Great stuff.

I have no idea how long this spell, this fresh spring is going to last – with my luck, probably about 4 days max – but I certainly intend to make the most of it. While I’m doing so I will be looking forward to the summer heat, and visits to Croatia and England, maybe the Polish coast too. And bike rides in my shorts with my shirt off. Relaxing at my bolthole, beer in hand, watching the kids play with their friends while the sausages and chicken wings and pork burns on the barbie. Maybe even mowing the grass.

I can’t wait.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A Trip to Paris - Part 3: Some Gentle Exercise

Charles de Gaulle airport lies out of town, to the north, close to the old (but still used) Le Bourget airport and in the suburb of Roissy-en-France. It’s a massive airport, with multiple terminals and runways, but relatively well designed. The terminals are grouped quite close together, and the largest, Terminal 2, split into a half a dozen sections, all with easy access to the metro and train stations – if you’re prepared to walk a bit through a labyrinth of wide corridors and up and down several escalators. We arrived at the main Air France Schengen Terminal 2F, which of course turned out to be farthest from the station. The walk took a good 20 minutes (we were not hurrying), and almost as long to sort out tickets. For some reason, none of our bank cards worked on the machines, so we had to queue at the ticket office to get them - the same cards worked perfectly there: most odd.

But the ride into Paris Nord station on the RER system was painless – one intermediate stop at the other airport terminal, then fast from there through the dark suburbs into the city centre. The station is another big, sprawling multi-layered affair, serving the RER lines, the Paris Metro and suburban train services, as well as intercity TGV express trains and the Eurostar service to London. In a previous life I used to do the Eurostar trip from Waterloo (or sometimes Ashford) a couple of times a week, but that was 20 odd years ago since when there has been (and continues to be) a lot of major refurbishment, so that I managed to take the wrong exit. Instead of Rue la Fayette we were in a little side road and spent a good half hour walking around in circles trying to find the main road we needed. Asking directions was not practical as most of the people around were either tourists like ourselves, or local young people drunk, stoned or just not interested in much except having a good time – there are a lot of bars, restaurants and clubs in the area, not all the kind you would want to frequent at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night unless you’re under 30 and with friends.

But eventually we found Rue la Fayette, and headed off into the city, guided by the searchlight that pierces the sky from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Our hotel was just over a kilometre away, on the same road, so easy to find. Except we missed it – we went into a small supermarket to buy some snacks and a bottle of wine for a night cap, but the shop was on the corner of a little junction and we again took the wrong direction when we came out. Another 25 minutes wandering around and asking directions ensued before we finally got to the hotel entrance – not more than 100m from the supermarket.

We checked in to the Best Western Opera Fauberg hotel, and went to our room, on the top floor overlooking La Fayette. The place is an old building, oddly shaped with little corridors between the rooms, but has been modernised well. There is a decent sized lounge and bar area by the entrance, and the whole place has a British theme – there are big china British Bulldogs everywhere, some comfortable seats decorated with Union Jack material and a replica red British telephone box. The restaurant was one floor down, and turned out to do a good buffet breakfast. All the corridor walls were covered with black and white framed photos of old British stars from Charlie Chaplin to some more recent ones – Benny Hill seemed a popular choice: there were a number of him groping the Hill’s Angels dancers that used to feature in his shows, often dressed provocatively as French maids….

Our room was quite small, but the bed comfortable. The shower was fine, and there was a kettle and cups for coffee (that in the event we never used) and best of all a fridge in which we were able to chill the wine and champagne we had bought. The view from the window – one that could be opened rather than the normal uPVC sealed units found in most hotels these days – was nice, stretching the length of la Fayette as far as Gare du Nord to the left and into the City to the right. In that direction, the top half of the Eiffel Tower in the distance rose above the surrounding buildings, its searchlight sweeping the sky. At street level there were a number of bars and bistros opposite, all open and busy at this late hour. I took a couple of pics, we dropped our stuff and headed off for a late dinner and an early taste of the Parisian nightlife.

After a fraught night before and a long day’s travelling, we didn’t venture far, but down a side-street opposite the hotel we found a decent looking Italian restaurant, the Pizza Capri. It was small and snug, with no more than a dozen tables and a real, huge brick pizza oven, run by Italians, and the food was not only tasty but excellent value. We ordered two pizzas and a bottle of dry white, and settled down to relax and enjoy the weekend. The pizzas were massive, and neither of us finished them but they were delicious and the restaurant was happy to pack the leftovers for us to take away – lunch the next day on our roamings was thus sorted.

The wine was good too, and fortified by the meal we wandered around the streets for half an hour before going back to the hotel, where we slept very well indeed, partly from tiredness but without a doubt the wine helped.

After sampling what the buffet breakfast had to offer (answer: a lot, and all of it tasty) we headed off for our single day’s exploration of the city, carrying a bag with left over pizza, a bottle of water and a half-bottle of champagne (to drink on our Eiffel Tower tour as a celebration for my reaching pensionable age). I also had a folder with a city map (including Metro links) and the details of the tour, meeting points and so on.

First stop was Montmartre, on the basis it was quite close. We wandered round the first corner, about 50 metres from the hotel, and up a narrow shopping street that had been closed to traffic. There was a nice feel about the area, plenty of wine shops, cheese merchants, patisseries, fruit markets and pavement cafes serving coffee and breakfast pastries. The weather was fine and warm, and many families and tourists were wandering around in both directions enjoying the ambience. We stopped at one bakery and bought a kind of French baguette that was filled with chocolate chips and the store owner was kind enough to take some pictures of us together, admiring the thing. We brought it home with us, and I have no idea how it tasted – I assume the kids enjoyed it.

A little further up we found a gift store and paid the first of a few visits to it. We ended up buying a couple of tee-shirts, a selection of fridge magnets and key rings, and I treated myself to a cap to replace the football one that I was wearing (and my beloved hates ;-)) ). I wore it happily the rest of the day, much to her delight.

From there, we climbed another steep hill to the beautiful church of Sacré Couer, and then three or four flights of ridiculously steep stone steps to get to the church’s forecourt, past a funicular railway that would have saved us a lot of energy at the exorbitant cost of about 15. We didn’t go into the church this time, but enjoyed the stunning views out across the city and took many pictures on both the camera and the mobile phones – the selfie stick we borrowed from our Ally proved its worth, once we figured out how to use it. Below the main forecourt is a little terraced park that was full of people wandering around trying to avoid the hawkers (most of whom seemed to be refugees from the Calais Jungle) peddling their wares – cheap and tacky models of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Arc de Triomphe, plastic key rings and of course selfie sticks in a range of colours. Half way down a fitness group was practising synchronised agony to the blare of a beatbox and encouraging like minded masochists to join in. We studiously ignored it.

We then headed back past our gift shop for the centre of the Montmartre neighbourhood, because the Moulin Rouge nightclub is another must-see destination (according to the guide books anyway). The area is bigger and more brash than the old Soho neighbourhood in London was before the Mary Whitehouse brigade cleaned it up back in the 70s, and to this viewer is more open about its wares than Soho ever was. Down both sides of the main street there are strip clubs (some open even on this Sunday morning), porn shops, adult movie theatres and the nowadays inevitable kebab shops. The were plenty of cafes and bistros open for business but the three Irish pubs I spotted were at least still closed – which was a shame: hot from the walking and steps at Sacré Couer a cold Harp lager would have gone down very well. There was also a number of clothes shops with names like Sexodrome that sold various entertaining looking night attire and other faux-leather costumes…...

So we took out photos, paused on a bench in the middle of the road (there is like a pedestrianised strip between traffic carriageways with seats and the odd newsagent’s kiosk) for some crisps and a drink, then headed off to the Metro to make our way to Invalides and our Eiffel Tower tour.

At which point, things began to go - well, a bit wrong.

The Paris Metro, like the London Underground and the systems in most other major countries, is big. There are about a dozen lines, shown on the map in different colours like in London, but listed by numbers (1, 2, 3, etc) rather than names (Central, Piccadilly, etc) so in theory should be easy enough to understand. The maps outside the stations and in the entrances where the ticket machines and offices are located, are pretty clear too. OK, the station names are all in French, but at least that means Latin characters rather than unintelligible Cyrillic script, or Hebrew or Arabic or Chinese characters, and we can manage that. Trouble is the directions between lines and platforms are a bit confusing, and all the platform entrances have electric barriers you have to go through rather than just tunnel entrances and single barriers at the station entrance (as you get on every other metro system I’ve ever used), and if you use the wrong barrier it still registers your fare and means you have to buy ANOTHER ticket to get on the right platform and right line …… One wrong move can take 10 minutes or more to sort out when the line is busy or you are a tourist with no French to ask for help. Like us…..

Inevitably, we couldn’t find the correct platform – the station was an intersection between about three or four lines, and we wandered round in circles asking unresponsive Parisians for help (God, they are so rude and arrogant sometimes!) before asking a guy with a fruit counter who put us right. We got to the platform and found 5 minutes to wait for our train. This meant that nearly half of the 30 minutes we had allowed ourselves to get across to Invalides (as far as we could see the nearest station to the Tower, and only about 4 stops away) had already been used up. Invalides also looked to be quite distance from the Tower and our meeting place too…...

So it turned out. We bolted out of the station entrance at Invalides exactly at 12:15 – which was the time we were due to meet up with the tour group - not knowing which way to go. While Ania booted up Google Maps on her mobile I tried calling the Emergency Phone Number thoughtfully supplied. I got a recorded message (in French only) that meant nothing to me, then cut off. I tried again. Same result. Ania, meanwhile, was dashing down the street, phone in hand. I gave chase, and tried the number a third time. Nothing. We spotted a cab pulled up at the side of the road and asked if he would take us to the Tower. He pointed in the direction we were headed and gabbled something….we asked again: can you take us? A typical Gallic shrug as he turned away – that’ll be a no, then. Off we went as I tried to call a fourth unsuccessful time. Another cab. He agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to take us for a fare of 7. We piled in at 12:23 – eight minutes late. A red light stopped us – two more minutes gone as my fifth call failed. Then we arrived at a blockage right next to the Tower, a roadworks diversion – we paid the man (no haggling, even though the meter only read 3-50) and galloped off again.

We were on the wrong side of road and there was nowhere to safely cross – the nearest lights and crossing another 100metres or so along the pavement. We got to them, breathless, and crossed quickly as the lights turned green. The Tower was close, but the customer line stretched endlessly away from us to the entrance furthest away. We got there, waving our priority pass confirmation and were waved into the (empty) Priority lane. A security check like at the airport. Empty your bags for x-ray and pass through the gate. Our half-bottle of champers was not well received – you can’t take that, said the bitch on the gate. We pleaded with her – well, Ania did, I just swore fluently in as many languages as I could remember words – 4, I think. The bitch shrugged her shoulders. Non. In despair, Ania hurled the bottle into a metal waste bin and there was a satisfying pop as the cork came out… least the bitch wouldn’t be drinking our booze! We piled through the security gate, grabbed coats and bags and barged through, ignoring the French babble behind us.

Now there are four legs to the Eiffel Tower, each of which has stairs or escalators to the first level, where you pick up the elevators to the top. Which one our tour group was using we had no idea, but there was an Information office close by, so we went there. It was by now way past the Tour start time, so we did not expect to meet up with the group and guide – no matter, we’ll make our own way up and have a wander around– bugger the history lesson and the guide pointing out the obvious sights: we could figure them out from the map I had.

But no. Information advised us that we had no tickets – our now crumpled sheet of paper was merely the booking confirmation, the tickets had to be collected from the Tour operator’s office. We explained again, for the umpteenth time, what our problem was and pleaded, for the umpteenth time to some cold-hearted French tart, to be let through, it was my birthday etc etc etc. The cold-hearted French tart shrugged her shoulders. Close to tears now, Ania asked where the office was. The woman gestured behind us at a block of grand-looking buildings way over there…..not on the site of the Tower at all. Tired, now, sweaty, frustrated, close to tears, we trudged off. There was no point in rushing any more.

The office was half way back the way we had come, and was full with another group patiently waiting for their guide. Behind the counter, sitting at a computer, a receptionist was writing an e-mail (or surfing the internet, I’m not sure which). We waited impatiently for a couple of minutes, recovering our breath.

Excuse me…..”

She held up an imperious hand.

Moment.” And continued doing things on her computer for another couple of minutes. Then: “Yes?”

We launched into our by now familiar speech. She shrugged her shoulders without looking at us.

You are too, late, I cannot ‘elp you.” And turned back to her screen.

I lost it then. In between a wide range of cusses, I pointed out that I had tried to call half a dozen times on the emergency number that no-one had answered, that we had been given insufficient directions to the meeting place, that the Paris Metro system was complete crap and the taxi drivers thieves, and why could she not give us our tickets to make our own way around the Tower who needs tour guides anyway, why can’t you add us to the next tour group……

Your receipt.” A demand, no please.

I gave it to her. She swung around in her chair and took a photocopy, then gave it back without a word, and turned back to her screen. I waited a few second.

And?” I said. “Our tickets?”

She shrugged.

Non. You were too late. I cannot ‘elp you.” Still no sorry.

I took a deep breath, ready to launch into another tirade, but Ania took my hand and pulled me towards the door without saying anything. We left.

On the pavement outside the door the tears came properly, Ania blaming herself for everything, me trying to console her. I dug out the rumpled confirmation and found another number, listed as that of the internet booking agency we had used to buy the tour. I dialled a UK mobile number, not expecting any answer – it was a Sunday afternoon, remember. All down the pub…..

A girl answered. I told her the whole sorry story. For once, there was a genuinely sympathetic tone. She apologised profusely and had the decency to wish me a happy birthday. But she could do nothing to help us. Her company was merely an online booking agency, not the tour operator. She asked for an e-mail with all the details and promised she would do her best for us and re-book to tomorrow. I told her this was no good as we were flying home then and asked for a refund. She wasn’t sure but promised to try when she got the mail. OK… no Eiffel Tower then.

We wandered away, not really sure where to go or what to do next, the shadow of the Tower falling over us as we turned a corner.

After a while, we found ourselves passing an open space, a small park, on which the Tower stood. There was a coach full of Indian tourists lined up like a football team while someone took lots of pictures on a selection of mobile phones – the coach driver, probably. I paused for a moment and made rabbit’s ears behind someone in the back row that hopefully drew a smile (or howl of anguish) when the owner of that particular phone saw the pics…...cruel, perhaps, but that is the way I felt at that moment.

We paused for a couple of minutes and half-heartedly took our photos, then walked on towards the Seine. We came to the corner where we had dashed across the road when we had arrived there, crossed again and climbed a flight of steps to a kind of elevated promenade that ran along the top of the riverbank. There we sat for half and hour and ate the remains of last night’s pizza and cooled down. The morning’s clouds had cleared and it was a warm, sunny early spring day. Delightful.

We debated what to do next. We were tired and decidedly pissed off, but it was still early and to head back to the hotel seemed to me admitting defeat and wasting what was turning into a lovely afternoon. Ania was more pissed off than I was, and preferred to head back to the hotel. We compromised: we would head back towards the centre of the city, across the river, and see how we felt then. I still wanted a look at the Arc de Triomphe and fancied a beer in a street bar somewhere. I felt there was nothing to be gained by stressing about the failed Tower trip – it was in the past and we could nothing now except claim our money back when we got home. I was not prepared to let a bunch of snotty Frog tarts ruin my birthday! Ania eventually agreed, and we set off.

We sauntered back along the promenade, through a small children’s fair complete with small carousel and burger bar, and crossed the river. Below us the river was running fast and strong, and a stream of long bateaux mouches passed under the bridge in both directions. For a minute I thought about taking a trip along to Notre Dame cathedral on one, but the queues were long and I’d had enough of that and unhelpful French civil servants for one day, so I didn’t mention the possibility. Instead, on the other bank, we paused to take a couple of pictures of the now distant Tower, then joined the throng above us at the Jardins du Trocadéro. Here we took another string of pictures, with the Jardins below us, leading to the Pont d’Iéna that we had used to cross the Seine, and beyond that the Tower. On some of them we were able to do weak trick photos: by standing on the wall, one hand held high, you can make it look as though you are holding the top of the Tower between thumb and forefinger. We did something similar years ago, kissing the Sphinx at Giza.

We headed off then to find the Arc de Triomphe. I had seen it many times, and never quite been able to figure out the traffic flow around it, nor who had right of way. I read somewhere that all motor insurance is considered invalid there, as the traffic was totally uncontrollable and no-one could ever prove who was in the wrong in the event of an accident. A believable story but probably apocryphal…...though I wouldn’t bet on it.

Once again my navigation was way off. At the bottom of the steps exiting the Jardins is a roundabout with 6 exits. One of the roads leading off, Avenue Kleber, leads directly to Souterrain Étoile and the Arc. We strolled straight across Kleber, as we did two other roads after it, and struck off along Avenue Georges Mandel. I thought I had caught sight of the Arc a few minutes earlier, as we waited for the lights at Avenue du President Wilson to change, and Mandel was the road to take.
In fact, Mandel runs away at angle of 120° or so from Kleber – basically in the opposite direction. But we didn’t realise this for a kilometre or more, when we reached the junction and Metro station at Avenue Henri Martin, where we finally spotted a sign for the Arc, leading away along Avenue Victor Hugo. The detour probably added a good 3km to our walk – and in my case at least 4 foot blisters.

But eventually, legs aching and feet sore, we reached our goal and sat for a while watching the traffic cutting across and cars weaving around each other as they passed Napoleon’s Monument to himself (this was before Waterloo, of course). It seemed likely that the rule was give way to anything coming from the left, but not everyone went along with that – many drivers seemed to give way to traffic from the right instead. I was left none the wiser, and nursing a conviction that no matter how much money I was offered I would never attempt to drive across here. Then we crossed carefully back over Victor Hugo, Rue Lauriston, Kleber, Avenue d’Iéna and finally Avenue Marceau to reach the junction between the Champs Élysée and Avenue de Friedland. Here we were immediately opposite the Arc, looking back through it in the direction of La Defense at the far end of the Avenue de la Grande Armée (for a near midget, Bonaparte certainly had an ego the size of the planet Mars).

More photos, of traffic shrouding the Arc in petrol fumes. Camera and selfies on the phones (along with the massed ranks of Chinese tourists doing likewise). We couldn’t get the best view, clean through the centre of the Arc and down Grande Armée because there were barriers up on the far side masking repair and renovation work.

We had thought about heading along the Champs Elysée and taking a beer and a sandwich somewhere, but because of my detour we were both flagging – my legs ached and my feet were very sore, and Ania was, if anything, worse, so we decided to head back to the hotel for a brief rest before heading back to the Moulin Rouge for some after dark shots and a meal.

More Metro madness! This time, the map pointed to taking an RER train two stops, then changing lines for another three to get to our hotel’s closest station. But the lady on the ticket desk insisted we were wrong and sold us tickets for the Metro line instead – it added a couple of additional stops but what the hell – we were too tired to argue. The train was packed, standing room only, but Ania managed to grab a seat at the first stop. We got to our change, at the station for the Louvre Art Gallery, which is when the problems started. On the platform we needed to find the route to Line 7 – and saw two signs saying 7, one at each end of the platform. We took pot luck and headed for the closest. It was, inevitably, the wrong one, and took us back to street level – Exit 7, not Line 7. Further, at this station we had to run our tickets through a barrier to get out – which of course used up our transfer option and effectively killed the ticket. We milled around the ticket hall and grumpily joined a queue to buy yet more tickets. The queue was next to the barrier leading to Line 7, and we were, for a change, a bit fortunate – a couple with a baby in a pushchair needed to go through the big gate to get to Line 7 and were allowed through. With the staff distracted (or more likely disinterested) we followed them through. Back on track.

After that – no issues. At our station there were no exit barriers to worry about, and we were able to stroll back onto la Fayette not more than 100m from the hotel. We paid one more visit to the supermarket and picked up another half-bottle of champagne to replace the one sacrificed at the Eiffel Tower: it would be our night cap later. In our room, we dumped the bags and put the champagne in the fridge, and I took a couple more views out of the window. I was reluctant to sit down because I was not sure I would be able to get up again, so we headed off once more.

It was getting towards dark, and the shops were closing, the streets emptying. We re-traced our steps through Montmartre and got to the Moulin Rouge as darkness fell, There were comparatively few people around at this early hour, but plenty of barkers outside the various strip joints and porn shops vying for custom, but we ignored them, took our pictures then strolled back the way we had come, looking for somewhere to eat. We decided on a decent looking place called Le Chat Noir, about a hundred metres down Boulevard de Clichy from the nightclub and next door to a seedy looking Museum de l’Erotisme. The restaurant was quite full, and had a covered seating area looking out onto Clichy, and there was live music from inside – a guy with an acoustic guitar singing and playing – he was quite good. The menu looked ok, so in we went. We found a table by the entrance to the interior seating, where we could listen to the music better, but still close enough to see the street and all its passing strangers.

We ordered a couple of big Stella Artois lagers and fish ‘n’ chips. Our waiter was a young guy: “I am Brazilian!” he announced. “Neymar! Good player!”

“Harry Kane,” I said. “Better player!”

My wife announced it was my birthday, and the lad shook my hand and congratulated me, then dashed off for the beers. We relaxed, then, tired and sore, but happy. The Eiffel Tower was a distant and fading annoyance. The beer was good, strong and cold as Stella should always be, and the food very good indeed. One of the better fish ‘n’ chips I’ve eaten, and a pleasant surprise in this place. We took more pictures while we ate and drank a second beer, then called for the bill. Neymar’s mate brought it, and we found he had not charged for the beers – we pointed it out to him.

“On the house,” he said with a smile. “’Appy Birsday!”

It quite made my day! After battling disinterested French jobsworths all day, this act of kindness by a happy young Brazilian waiter restored me completely – I only hope he didn’t get into trouble with his boss!

So we left Le Chat Noir and strolled slowly back to the hotel. Another souvenir shop benefited from the sale of a couple more tee-shirts, and as a light drizzle started we paused at Place Pigalle to take some pics of the famous theatre there (with Sexodrome in the background).

Back at the hotel – pictures of the interior – those china British Bulldogs! – then back to the room. Showers to wash away the blood from burst blisters and ease aching muscles, then break out the champagne and cheese and biscuits to finish the day. Then a deep and refreshing sleep…….

Monday dawned sunny and warm. We had a very good and filling breakfast, then finished packing and headed off to Gare du Nord for our flight home. It was easier this way, knowing where we were going, and buying the RER tickets equally painless – this time my card worked in the machine.

At the airport, security was surprisingly quick and efficient, and we were through to the Air France Business Lounge by our gate nearly two hours before our flight was due. It was a bit of a disappointment: it’s quite small and was full of people, standing room only. But we managed to find two seats, not together, and settled in, and shortly after some people left and we were able to join up again. But the food was quite good, and there was a decent selection of drinks and a great view out the window to the apron. We found magazines and papers in English and chilled out until flight time.

No delays. Decent seats. Cabin service was basic – beef or veggie sandwiches, coffee and soft drinks, but it was free and the crew brisk, efficient and friendly. Straight through Arrivals with cabin baggage only, and into the taxi. Home ten minutes later to hugs and kisses from the kids.

A delightful weekend, and a lovely – and memorable! - birthday.

To my wife and kids, who organised it all and managed to keep it secret from me for nearly three months – thank you so much!